Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The sort of good old days

I can't remember which blog it was that last week spent a couple of days talking about writing house name books. A dozen writers sharing the same pen-name.

One of the bloggers mentioned the practice of handing off the house name assignment when a better deal came along. When I started out in the early eighties the house name field was flourishing in many different genres. Men's action seemed to do better than westerns or detectives.

I got to know a few writers who regularly produced house name books. One by one they asked me if I'd like to write a book for them. I'd do the first draft and they'd do the polish. They had better things to do. Generally they gave me half the money and no royalties. As a beginner, I was grateful for the job. I was being paid to write. It was the equivalent of being paid to go to school.

I've noted before some of the difficulties I ran into. One writer who said I was a pornographer; another who said I made fun of heroes (his hero was, alas, a psycho). And yet another who told me that men of the old west never used dirty language in front of women. The fuck if they didn't, I said.

But I learned a lot with these jobs, especially about writing westerns. The funniest part of it was, since I was the beginner, getting an assignment after it had passed through three or four other writers. Didn't have time; decide they hated writing these books; got a much better deal to do a serious book bearing their own name. So it worked its way down and down...till it came to me.

I always think of Don Westlake's great book (and I do mean great--hilarious and not a little bit sad) about the young guy, no writer at all, who is talked into writing hack porno novels. Adios, Schherazade gets this whole hack job world down perfectly. It is a masterpiece of rue and wit and desperation.

I'm not sure that world exists anymore, not with so many category novel lines being canceled. I rarely see, except for Louis of course, any western novels outside the chains and certanly never any action adventure stuff.

I don't say this with any great remorse. The down and dirty days are gone. Publishers put their money into books with potential. But while it existed, you could learn a good deal about craft and get paid pretty well, too.


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